Piping Plovers nest on open sand beaches and are susceptible to human disturbance and mortality from beach driving. Young plover chicks typically move large distances to and from the nest soon after hatching to forage. They may hide in vehicle tracks along beaches and have trouble getting out of them. Because they are so well-camouflaged they are in danger of being run over.
Piping Plovers are federally listed as endangered in the Great Lakes and as threatened on the Atlantic coast. New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has listed this species as endangered in the state. Without vigorous protection and management efforts, reproductive success of piping plovers in New York State would be very low. Protection of nests and eggs from predators and disturbance has been successful at stabilizing numbers. The population has gone from 187 pairs in 1992 to 437 pairs in 2009 (Gibbons pers. comm.). However, juvenile recruitment may be low, stemming from high predation rates on juveniles and poor food availability due to habitat loss and degradation. Predation coupled with limited habitat and human disturbance are major factors that would inhibit populations from rebounding without protection.
The distribution of Piping Plovers in New York remained largely unchanged from the first Breeding Bird Atlas to the second. Seventy-five atlas blocks were occupied during the first atlas effort in 1980-85 and 76 in the second effort in 2000-05; an increase of 1% (McGowan and Corwin 2008). New York State Department of Environmental Conservation's population counts show that numbers are on the rise, however, and stabilizing. There were only 114 breeding pairs in 1985, 294 in 1995, and 437 in 2009 (NYSDEC 2010).
The long-term trend is declining. Piping Plovers rebounded after hunting them was prohibited in 1913. Within modern times Wilcox (1959) estimated 500 breeding pairs on Long Island in 1939 and population numbers have been reduced to 190 estimated pairs annually from 1989-1995 (Levine 1998), a reduction of 62%.
Piping Plovers are subject to many significant threats including habitat loss, nest and chick predation, human disturbance, and low population numbers. Habitat loss has occurred over time as beaches have been converted for residential and recreational use. Natural succession and vegetative regrowth of the open sand beaches used for nesting decrease habitat quality for this species. Vegetation may restrict movements of the chicks from high quality foraging habitats and starvation in some areas has been a problem (Loegering and Fraser 1995). They are adapted to a fluctuating system where cycles of vegetative regrowth and set back occur due to weather systems creating sand deposits and washes. Habitat availability in some areas may be an issue if smaller habitat patches become vegetated without nearby expanses of sand scoured habitat for the birds to move into. Habitat availability for this species will only continue to decline with rising sea-levels and increased storms due to global climate change. Habitat fragmentation may also be a significant issue in some areas. Plover chicks are known to hide in or have difficulty crossing vehicle tracks in the sand and mortality from beach driving is a direct threat. Roads, residences, and high use areas fragment populations and limit travel to foraging areas. Beach management practices including raking and allowing ORV traffic may eliminate or reduce the wrack line left by the tide which is a prime foraging environment (Goldin 1993). Human activity not only limits habitat available to the plovers, but it is disruptive during the breeding season to adults and chicks (Goldin and Regosin 1998). Perhaps surprisingly, kite-flying near plover nesting areas is a threat as the adults are highly disturbed, perhaps viewing the kites as aerial predators (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2010). Adults may flush from nests exposing eggs to heat or cold and leaving eggs and chicks open to predation. Human presence near nesting habitats has likely increased nest predators such as raccoons, crows, and rats by providing them a food source, garbage.
Management of habitat for Piping Plovers requires not only protection of nesting areas from both human disturbance and high predation, but also conservation of foraging areas and safe access for the highly mobile chicks to these areas. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (2010) recommends the following: 1) Install a symbolic (string) fence with warning signs around Piping Plover courtship habitat at a minimum of 50 meters away from nest locations to prohibit human disturbance. 2) Ensure all human activities are kept outside the fenced area. 3) Keep pet cats indoors, keep dogs on a leash and prohibit feral cats. 4) Trash should not be left or buried on beaches since it attracts predators. 5) Consult with a biologist or plover monitor to determine areas of the beach that should not be raked. 6) Prohibit kite flying within 200 meters of fenced areas (Plovers are especially intolerant of them, perhaps perceiving them as aerial predators). 7) Prohibit fireworks on beaches with plovers. 8) Implement motor vehicle management and restrictions on occupied beaches, including closing all beaches with nesting plovers or foraging chicks according to the guidelines in The Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region Guidelines for Managing Recreational Activities in Piping Plover Breeding Habitat on the U.S. Atlantic Coast To Avoid Take Under Section 9 of the Endangered Species Act (available at http://www.fws.gov/northeast/pipingplover/pdf/recguide.pdf). Symbolic fencing should be erected at reliable nesting locations prior to the arrival of the birds in the spring and removed in the fall. Posting nesting areas from April 1st through August 31st habituates people to the seasonally off-limits area and protection efforts may be furthered by the presence of a steward on public beaches. Off-road vehicles, fireworks and off-leash pets should be restricted from beaches with nesting plovers from April 1st to August 31st as well. On beaches where driving is allowed it is recommended that all suitable Piping Plover habitat is fenced (Gibbons pers. comm.). Predator exclosures around nests have increased nesting success but are also controversial (Mabee and Estelle 2000, Murphy et al. 2003a, 2003b). Predators have learned to identify the wire exclosures and have actually increased nest predation in some areas. Chicks are precocial, or fully developed, once hatched and able to move large distances to and from the nest to forage in as little as one day after hatching. This means that nest exclosures do little to protect chicks from predation once they hatch. Electric or snow fencing may be used if predation is high and predator removal may be necessary and effective in some instances when a low number of raccoons, or rats are the issue.
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation conducts annual population surveys of breeding sites and monitors productivity of many pairs, however, more comprehensive productivity data (on nesting success) are needed (Gibbons pers. comm.). This will determine if pairs are successful at producing offspring to ensure long-term population viability and will identify threats to specific sites such as human disturbance and predation so that management steps may be taken when needed. More information is especially needed on chick survivial and predation of chicks.
Piping Plovers nest on open, sparsely-vegetated beaches and sandflats between the primary dune and high tide line (Elliott-Smith and Haig 2004, McIntyre et al. 2010). Vegetative cover is generally less than 20% (Haig 1986). Elias et al. (2000) found that beaches with ephemeral pools and bay tidal flats were higher quality habitat for brood-rearing in New York. Nest sites on Long Island, in one study, occured in less than 50% vegetative cover with most nests occured on bare ground (Cohen et al. 2008). Nests in vegetated cover occured more frequently than expected based on availability (Cohen et al. 2008). A small amount of vegetative cover may protect chicks from exposure to the sun and wind. During winter, Piping Plovers use both coastal and inland beaches, algal bay flats, mudflats, and sandflats, along the Gulf of Mexico, inland bays, and Atlantic coast (Elliott-Smith et al. 2004, Haig and Oring 1985, Johnson and Baldassarre 1988, Nicholls and Baldassarre 1990).
The historical range in New York includes two subspecies: Charadrius melodus melodus occupying Long Island and C. m. circumcinctus occupying the Great Lakes (McGowan and Corwin 2008). The Great Lakes population was largely extripated by 1955, with only one subsequent brood discovered during the first Breeding Bird Atlas in Oswego County in 1984 (Levine 1998). No Piping Plovers were found in the Great Lakes Region during the second Breeding Bird Atlas in 2000 to 2005 (McGowan and Corwin 2008). A pair successfully nested on the eastern shore of Lake Ontario in 2015 and two nesting attempts occurred in 2016 in the same location. The Long Island population appears to have shifted its distribution slightly with more southern bayside beaches occupied during the first atlas and a slightly higher frequency of occupied blocks along the shores of the Atlantic Ocean and Long Island Sound and Peconic Bay in the second (McGowan and Corwin 2008). This shift likely reflects a combination of suvey effort in those areas as well as expansion of the species into new areas.
BREEDING: The breeding range extends from the northern Great Plains including southern Alberta, northern Saskatchewan, southern Manitoba, northwestern and (formerly) southwestern Ontario, south to eastern Montana, the Dakotas, southeastern Colorado (Andrews and Righter 1992). The range extends east barely into Iowa, Minnesota, and Nebraska; sporadic nesting occurs in Oklahoma; breeding birds are widely distributed in small populations (Haig 1992, Haig and Plissner 1993). Formerly Piping Plovers were found throughout much of the Great Lakes region, now locally only in northern Michigan (Haig 1992, Evers 1992). Great Lakes breeding populations have been largely extirpated in New York since 1955; with only one subsequent record in 1984 during the first Breeding Bird Atlas (McGowan and Corwin 2008). Atlantic coast populations span Newfoundland, southeastern Quebec, and New Brunswick to North Carolina (Haig 1992). Eighty-two percent of nesting pairs are found in Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, and Virginia (USFWS 1992). See USFWS (1994) for further information on breeding distribution in particular states. NON-BREEDING: The complete winter distribution is not known. Birds have been reported wintering from North Carolina south to Florida, the Gulf coast states, Mexico, and the Caribbean. About 5 percent of the total North American breeding population and 14 percent of the entire Atlantic coast breeding population winters from North Carolina through Florida. Plovers wintering on the Atlantic coast occurred most frequently in Georgia and least frequently in Florida. Approximately 35 percent of the total breeding population winters along the gulf coast from Florida to Texas and represents 56 percent of the Great Lakes/Great Plains population. The species also occurs in small numbers in the Bahamas and Greater Antilles, and probably eastern Mexico. See Nicholls and Baldasarre (1990) and Haig and Plissner (1993) for further information on winter distribution in the southeastern U.S., including listings of important sites.
The Piping Plover is a small plover with orange legs, a white breast, sand-colored upperparts, and a short, stout bill. It is one of several plover species displaying a black neckband during the breeding season.
The Piping Plover is a small plover weighing 46-64 g (average 55 g). The length averages about 17-18 cm (NGS 1983). Adults in alternate (breeding) plumage have sand-colored upperparts (wings and back), a short stout bill that is orange at the base and black at the tip, and orange legs. They have a dark band across the front of the crown from eye-to-eye and a dark ring around their neck, or collar, that is more pronounced in males. The tail is grey and white at base, darkening towards the end and tipped with white. Nonbreeding birds loose identifying features such as the forehead stripe, neckband, and the bill becomes entirely black. Wintering birds are white underneath with a darker grey back and wings. Immature plumage resembles the adult nonbreeding plumage; juveniles acquire adult plumage the spring after they fledge. The Piping Plover's call has been described as a melodious organ-like two to four note whistle described as "peep-lo" (NYSDEC, Robbins et al. 1983). Nests generally consist of bare scrapes in the sand and are sometimes lined with pebbles or shells (NYSDEC). Eggs are pale buff-colored with splotches of black or dark brown or purple (Cairns 1982). Some clutches have more abundant larger, and darker splotching on the egg's broad end (Elliott-Smith and Haig 2004).
Although no single trait is exclusive to this species, the combination of breeding season characteristics including a small plover with a stout orange bill with a black tip, orange legs, white underparts, pale grey upperparts, black neckband, and white rump that is conspicous in flight, distinguishes this species.
Adults during the breeding season are easiest to identify, although it is possible to also distinguish juveniles and wintering adults from other species.
Piping Plovers raise one brood per year, although several nesting attempts may be made if previous attempts fail. Pairs are primaily monogamous but serial polygyny and polyandry have been reported (Haig and Oring 1988c, Elliott-Smith and Haig 2004). Piping Plovers frequently nest in the same areas as Least Terns, perhaps capitalizing on the extra protection afforded by the tern's fierce aerial defense of the nesting area and increased vigilance and alarm system. Piping Plovers tend to nest away from other Piping Plovers but don't seem to avoid placing their nests in proximity to terns. One study in New Jersey found average distances of Piping Plover nests were 85 to 99 meters to another Piping Plover nest and 5 to 36 meters to a Least Tern nest (Burger1987). Birds may thermoregulate by standing on driftwood on cold mornings, facing the sun, with their black neckbands exposed. On hot days, they may stand in the shade of a rock or log with their neckbands concealed (Elliott-Smith and Haig 2004). They do fly, but primarily walk or run; their sand-colored plumage providing excellent camoflouge. Territories, nests, and nestlings are defended against predators and territories may be defended against another Piping Plover or even a bird of a different species entering their territory (Elliott-Smith and Haig 2004). Defensive and aggressive behaviors include chasing, pecking, and biting. Defensive and territorial displays include assuming a display posture, puffing feathers and running long distances, sometimes over 100 meters parellel to another male along territrory boundaries (Cairns 1982). When a predator approaches a nest one or both parents may perform a distraction display by feigning a broken wing and running along the ground with one wing raised and one lowered (Cairns 1982). When both parents are present one may lead the chicks to saftey while the other feigns injury (Cairns 1982).
Piping Plovers' primary food source is invertebrates including a wide array of terrestrial insects, marine worms and tiny crusteaceans (Cairns 1977). Primary food items in at least some parts of their range include beetles such as Carabids (ground beetles) and Dytiscids (predaceous diving beetles), true bugs such as Corixidae (water boatmen), Diptera (flies) such as Chironomids (midges) and Ephydridae (shore flies), and also hymenopts, molluscs, polychaetes and amphiopods. Invertebrate prey taken varies by the age of the bird, habitat, range and season (Elliott-Smith and Haig 2004).
Migrants may be observed on Long Island in March and late August and breeding individuals may be observed from April through July (Levine 1998). This specieis usually rare on Long Island before mid-March and after September. On very rare occasions individual birds are observed in winter on Long Island.
The time of year you would expect to find Piping Plover active and reproducing in New York.
Charadrius melodus Ord, 1824
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This guide was authored by: Kelly A. Perkins
Information for this guide was last updated on: June 19, 2019
Please cite this page as:
New York Natural Heritage Program. 2022. Online Conservation Guide for Charadrius melodus. Available from: https://guides.nynhp.org/piping-plover/. Accessed December 2, 2022.